A visit to traffic control centre (TCC)

(This follows on a bit from this post about a traffic junction)

One of the fun things about being a councillor, is that it’s entirely legitimate to ask people to explain things to you. It’s very helpful to develop a specialism and to work on your knowledge in that area.

By and large, officers of the Council are very happy to meet with councillors and explain how things work. There are, of course, limits: people need to do their job, and can’t respond to every whim. And it would be completely inappropriate, for example,  to job-shadow a social worker into a family in difficult.

In the seven years or so I’ve been elected, I’ve concentrated on transport, the environment and planning sorts of issues, and so I serve on committees that focus on that, and I’ve tried to learn about how these things work on a practical level as well as a policy level.

Part of that, a few years ago was to ask for a SCOOT briefing. SCOOT (Split Cycle Offset Optimisation Technique) is a computer program that runs traffic lights, and having read a bit about it on the internet, I wanted to know how it works in practice in Nottingham. I emailed the relevant council employee and in response I got an invitation to the Traffic Control Centre to see it in action. This was, in fact, the first time I had even heard there was a TCC!

(NB what follows is my understanding, and my recollection of a briefing I had two years ago – please let me know if I have something wrong.)

My visit was ever so slightly disappointing. The staff were great, the visit was really interesting, and my knowledge of how hard the Council works to keep traffic moving in our city was really deepened.

But in my mind, I’d built up SCOOT as some sort of semi-sentient, all-seeing computer system that controlled every traffic light in the city. It’s not actually like that. SCOOT is used sparingly on just a few junctions. Most traffic lights are pure and simple timers – 20 seconds on one phase, 20 seconds on the next, green man phase if someone pushes the button. Some of them just do that all day, some of them have programs that take account of variations throughout the day – eg peak flow of traffic into the city and out of it again; giving priority to major routes over minor ones. Even this is pretty unsophisticated – it’s just time based. From 8-10 it runs Program A, 10-4, Program B etc.

The phasing is planned so that are deliberate sweet spots – if you time it right you should get repeated green lights – and so that they don’t encourage people to speed to get through the phases. But this is less and less possible these days because of sheer pressure of traffic. There is so much traffic on the roads that systems that were installed decades ago and haven’t changed all that much since can’t really cope.

A second type of lights is used in more remote places, usually where there is a main road and a lightly-trafficked road. Detectors in the road spot traffic and only change phase when there is demand. These are called MOVA – micro-processor optimised vehicle actuation.

And SCOOT is reserved for relatively few places where there are a series of complicated junctions with lots of different sets of lights and multiple entrances and exits and cars using the junctions in lots of different ways. These are referred to as “SCOOT regions”.

You can often tell the difference between SCOOT and other road junctions by the shape of the car detectors buried in the road. SCOOT ones are usually square, the other sort are chevron shaped across the carriageway.

In Nottingham, SCOOT is in use on the Queen’s Road near the Clifton Flyover; in Sherwood right the way through the main shopping district from Haydn Road to Edwards Lane; and in various places on the ring road, including the junctions around St Leo’s church.

In all these places, fundamentally what the computer system is doing is counting the cars in each lane, working out where they are planning to go, and changing the lights to let them do it. It counts them into the region and counts them out again. It knows how much road space there is so changes the lights wherever it can to stop too many vehicles queuing. It can plan ahead, make predictions, make changes automatically to take account of changing conditions, and let the operators know if something unusual is going on. It also takes constant readings of the numbers of cars, which means there is a huge dataset to analyse for future improvements.

The system is computer controlled, with a computer at the roadside, and a phoneline link to the main computer in TCC. If the line goes down, the system continues in failsafe mode but is less aware.

One final SCOOT fact: The Queens Road region has different priorities weekdays / weekends. In the week, it’s all about getting traffic into and out of the city.  At the weekend, it switches priority to helping traffic get in and out of the Riverside Retail park.

Some other TCC facts

  • TCC has a fab website with realtime information about road transport in the city. Check it before leaving for work: www.itsnottingham.info
  • TCC is mostly an operator and a huge bank of CCTV screens. Most of the feeds are also available on the website above.
  • If necessary, TCC staff can take direct control of most of the traffic lights and get important vehicles through quickly. This is useful for getting blue light response vehicles through the city, and when I visited, they were proud of how quickly they’d got the Prime Minister from one side of town to the railway station.
  • When an incident occurs, TCC turn off the live feed of the CCTV cameras to stop gawkers

One final point: it’s sometimes tempting to think, as a councillor, that after having a brief you fully understand something. It’s rarely the case.  The officers are dumbing it down to a level where you can understand it.  But they’re the trained people, often with decades of experience and training. If you think you’ve got a good understanding of SCOOT, pop over to this website and see how far through it you get before you lose the plot.

Interesting traffic light casework

A few weeks ago, a primary school-aged FOCUS reader got in touch with me to complain that a pedestrian crossing on a very busy main road took ages to let him cross the road. Indeed so long, that he had got a stopwatch to time it and said he had been waiting over 10 minutes to cross.

Clearly not right, so I passed on the details to the traffic signals team at the Council and asked them to look into it.

The junction in question – which used to be called Kamikaze Island ((roundabouts are called “islands” oop ‘ere in Nottingham)) until there were so many accidents they eventually, shortly before I came to the city, gave in to a Lib Dem campaign and replaced the roundabout with a pretty complicated traffic light scheme.

The traffic lights are controlled by a system called SCOOT ((Split Cycle Offset Optimisation Technique)) and part of that means there are a lot of traffic cameras in the area to help people help the computer control traffic remotely from Traffic Control Centre (TCC), currently located in Lawrence House in the city centre. So the staff there looked at the system, tried to make some changes, and asked my constituent for feedback about whether it had solved the problem. Many thanks, by the way, to the officer in question for writing an answer that clearly explained all this in a way someone of his age could easily understand. I’m probably not managing that in this blog post!

Unfortunately, the problem was not fixed by the changes made remotely, so we agreed on a site visit. Me, the signals engineer and the young constituent would all meet up for a cup of tea at 8am, then we would walk to school together and see the problem in action.

When we did, it was fairly clear what was going on.

For most of the junction, it’s possible to have green man phases when the traffic is stopped. Because the junction is so busy, it’s not possible to have a phase when all the traffic is stopped, so there are two exit roads out of the junction where the traffic only stops if pedestrians press a button. To make sure the traffic only stops when necessary, the junction waits for the button to be pressed, and before stopping the traffic, detects whether the pedestrian is still waiting, using visual sensors near the button. If the pedestrian moves away from the road – or manages to cross in a gap in the traffic before the green man comes – the crossing automatically cancels the request for the green man.

The signals engineer demonstrated this to all of us – me, my initial correspondent and his brother and family – by pressing the button, and making all of us stand away from the edge of the road. The “Wait” light came on when he pressed the button, but when he moved out of the range of the sensor, it just went off again, without calling the green man phase.

When we asked the young man to show us how he used the crossing, it was clear that this was what was going on. He’d been taught to press the button and then stand well clear of the road edge. By standing away, the crossing stopped detecting him and cancelled his request.

This is not an unreasonable thing for him to be doing. Traffic does come past the roadway very fast, and it’s very safety conscious to step back from the danger zone. And if the crossing is not detecting this one person, there are probably many others similarly affected.

So the engineer took the decision to disable the sensors. Now if you press the button, you get a green man every time, and the crossing does not take into account whether it can see someone standing there or not.

Since the sensor equipment is expensive, it will be moved and redeployed somewhere else where it can be more effective – and where hopefully it can be better tuned to detect people.

For me, a bit of a nerd on issues like this, one of the more exciting bits of the morning was when the engineer reprogrammed the junction. He did this by taking a big yellow keyboard out of his bag, unlocking the grey system box on the roadside, and plugging the keyboard into the computer there in the box. I’ve never seen inside one of those boxes and was keen to peek. The thing I remember most was the unshielded transformer in the corner of the box stepping mains voltage down to the low voltage needed to power the environmentally friendly LED lights and the computer equipment. Never open or hit one of these boxes with your car or you could get electrocuted!

(This post – or at least the idea you can blog about junctions – partly inspired by Helen Duffett’s post The Slash!)

(Also sorry for the slightly stuffy “constituent” and “traffic signals engineer” – because of the Power of the Internets and for privacy reasons, I try and avoid naming people who are not public figures)

The cost of last winter’s cold snap

Last year, Nottingham had a sudden cold snap which left the roads and pavements frozen and icy for a number of days. It was at the same time as the rest of the country, but there was a particular problem for quite a narrow area of the East Mids that left Nottingham, Derby and Mansfield particularly badly off.

As part of learning from the process and trying to perform better next year, in March, Nottingham City Council’s Overview and Scrutiny committee had a meeting to talk to both the staff responsible for winter resilience and staff at our local hospital, the QMC, about what happened.

I meant to blog about it at the time, because the meeting was fascinating.

I have just unearthed my notes, so I will blog about it now – with the proviso that I’m just relying on notes and my own sketchy memory, so apols if I get anything wrong.

So the senior management in charge of gritting came and told us what they had done, and what the council’s winter maintenance plan is. Basically, when the weather is as bad as it was for this brief window of time, the Council’s main focus is keeping the principle routes open. These are mainly the arterial roads into the city centre that are served by Nottingham City Transport. There were periods when the weather was so bad that they were trying to grit these routes multiple times per day, including taking staff off other work – I think I remember hearing that in the days when the bin lorries couldn’t get around, refuse collectors were redeployed to help with keeping main routes open.

A lot of anger comes from residents that they never see gritters on residential streets and that pavements are not cleared. The Council never aims to do this: the costs of just doing the main roads are so much that extending the service to residential streets as well are prohibitive. It would take millions of pounds more to have more gritters, more staff, another salt depot and so on. And you would need to have this even in the years when it ended up not needed.

There were also a lot more requests for grit bins to be installed, which again the Council is probably not going to do. I always have to declare an interest at this point as one of the few places where there is a grit bin is… right outside my house. It might look I’m getting special treatment, but I’m pretty sure it was there before I lived here. And our road is one of the steepest in Nottingham, and difficult to keep passable.

It used to be the case that grit bins were delivered in September and removed in April – this year they have stopped moving them and using the money they save that way to put out a few more bins. But they can’t manage to put a bin everywhere people asked for one.

As the cold receded, the Council started to recover. When the weather was at its worse, they entirely focussed on the principle routes. As it got better, they were able to extend their effort more to some of the larger residential streets, and the principle shopping areas, including Bulwell and Sherwood district centres. I certainly remember the day the bin service restarted – the only way they could safely get a bin lorry up my street was by sending a small flat-bed up first and have workers shovelling grit out into the tyre paths before the bin lorry came.

The next part of the meeting was a presentation from a senior consultant at the Emergency Department at the Queen’s Medical Centre who was there to explain just how the weather had affected them. This was fascinating, and it’s here that I took most notes, so I can be a bit more definitive.

In the period when the weather was at its worst, there were 900 patients with broken bones. This led to 500 major surgeries to try and put right – a total of 900 hours of surgery.

On January 13th, 589 people came through the Emergency Department.

On that day, they did an x-ray every minute for twelve hours.

That day alone, there were 130 breaks that needed 90 operations to put right.

This has had a huge knock on to follow-up clinics and fracture clinics for months would be very busy as they coped with the fall-out.

The effort entirely displaced elective surgery for days, and so waiting times went up. But that was probably OK as many of the elective patients could not get to the hospital through the weather.

The cost to the hospital of treating these patients was £960,000, and they estimated the cost to other employers through sick pay would be around £3.3m.

Nottingham City Council was well aware of the problem: a large number of staff suffered falls themselves and four councillors ended up with broken bones.

Surprisingly, very few of the injured were children – the hospital expects lots of children to fall of sledges. The explanation, apparently, was that although the pavements were treacherous, the playing fields were barely covered in snow. My notes say “crappy weather for sledging.” They also say “don’t drink and sledge” – and I can’t remember what that’s about.

My contribution to the meeting was threefold. Firstly, shortly after the cold snap, I went to my brother’s stag do in Brighton, and noticed every street had grit dumped on the pavement in a pile. Could this be a solution to the grit bin problem? Not to put out more grit bins, but in times of crisis, to just dump a bit of grit where it was needed? The Council weren’t terribly impressed at this idea, but did say that maybe dropping off builder’s cloth sacks full might be a compromise they would consider.

Secondly, for years the Council has joined up with the water boards to offer discounted waterbutts. Could we maybe do something similar for Snow Shovels? Actual snow shovels are easier to use then garden spades for clearing paths, and if the Council helps make sure there is a pool of equipment out in the community, it should be easier for us to all help each other in the worst weather. This idea did not go down well at all. If you want a snow shovel, buy it yourself.

Thirdly, could we put out some really straightforward advice on whether you can be sued for clearing pavements? Apparently not – the legal advice we got back on the was really equivocal. Probably not, was the answer. The gritting team were very keen that as many people as possible cleared their own pavements and helped out clear the back streets and residential roads. But the legal team could not give a clear answer that people could do so safely from a legal perspective. This is just nuts. What kind of country do we live in where people live in fear of being sued from clearing pavements?! They are still working on this.

NB I would put a link to the meeting minutes – but Committee Online is not working right now so I will have to add it later.

It gets better

Sometimes you have people in your feed reader – and their feed changes. Their posts stop showing up, and because you have so many feeds, you don’t immediately notice. Then months pass and years pass, and suddenly you find yourself thinking, “What happened to X?”

So it is for me with Dan Savage. I used to read his advice column, then one day it stopped showing up in Google Reader, and I didn’t immediately notice. I have sort of been able to work with Dan’s content because it shows up in other places, mostly JoeMyGod.

But in the last few days, Dan’s new project has a lot of coverage right the way across a whole series of blogs I read and things people tweet about. He’s responding to a series of young gay suicides in the US. Young gay people, he says, have very little access to grown-up gay people. Particularly in the US, normal gay adults are barred from talking to teens by schools, by churches and by society. So some young gay people have such a crummy time of it at school, never have the contrary view put, and end up feeling they have no future.

Dan thought, “Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don’t have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids.” And a youtube campaign was founded.

So, in the UK, the Lib Dems have been talking about homophobic bullying since, like, forever – here’s a link to a 2006 story. Now, as the Lib Dems have an Equalities Minister in Lynne Featherstone, it’s in the programme for government.

And its worth remembering, that whilst LGBT teenagers do get bullied for who they are, the net of bullying of teenagers is not very sophisticated, and countless thousands of non-gay people get bullied for it too.

My own personal experience of bullying at school – well, I’m sure many have experienced worse. A small bit of it around 12-13 was terrible, most of the rest of the years had their ups and downs. I was bullied for being gay from the of 5, long before I had any notion of what it meant. One way or another, I was “different” for my entire school, for any number of reasons. I was bright – near the top of nearly every class. I enjoyed reading. I hated sport. I made no effort to fit in. I was perfectly happy alone. I played recorder until I was 16. I was musical. I did all the theatre stuff. There were years when I was the only boy in the choir.

I went to three secondary schools: the family moved home just after I started secondary school, and moved me from the local school near one house to the local school near the new one. That one did not work well for me – again because I made no effort to keep my head down and fit in. I ate things in my packed lunch people thought were weird – like hard boiled eggs. I had a thermos flask of coffee. People used to watch me eat, so I’d put on a show. Like dunking the eggs in the coffee. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful.

Things came to a bit of a head one day when someone grabbed my glasses off my face, and bent them in half down the bridge – the bit that is not supposed to bend. I couldn’t bend them back or they would have snapped, so I had to go home like that. They were expensive, I couldn’t see much without them, and it was obvious my parents had to intervene. They went into the school and talked to the staff, and a teacher told them, apparently “These things usually go away in the sixth form. Most parents in your situation move their children somewhere else.”

So we used our church links to get me a place at a school in Hereford where I finished my school days. I was able to do more GCSEs as a result, spent a fraction of my life on a bus to or from school, life got a bit better.

I never came out at school, although I was pretty sure – sure enough to tell my parents – by 16. Maybe two people knew by the end of sixth form college. But I made a point of jumping in with two feet at university – finding the earliest opportunity to tell my housemates, joining the LGB Soc, and, well, putting it about a bit.

I was never suicidal at school, but there were times in my late teens I contemplated walking into the sea or jumping off a flyover under a truck. I got a depression diagnosis at one point, and took prozac – it never had an effect I noticed, either to help or the sorts of side-effects an ex experienced.

Those feelings passed. It does get better. Lasting friendships and relationships are possible. Hell, even *I*’m getting married next weekend, and if I can manage it anyone can.

Some final thoughts:

You don’t have to conform, even within the gay world. Plenty of gays don’t like clubbing or pop music. There are indie gays, there are goth gays, there are thrash metal gays. There are an awful lot of Early Music gays. There are even Cliff Richard gays!

Sign up to gay weekends. If you can manage to go on big gay weekends out with strangers, do it. Find a group doing something you like and string along. I’ve had amazing times and made great friends on gay camping weekends, and gay bellringing weekends.

There should be a third thing. But there isn’t. Lists of three are always a good rhetorical device, but it’s better if the third thing isn’t the blog equivalent of Lorum ipsum. Maybe I’ll write one later, but I was supposed to get an early night tonight and haven’t.

PS Everything you thought about musical theatre is true. All of them!? The whole cast?!

Labour’s voting records

I’m a little bit freaked out that the Labour party have been quite so… open about their leadership election votes.

They have a website of how CLPs ((Constituency Labour Parties)) voted, and a separate table of exactly how each Labour MP and MEP voted.

It’s this way that we know that Milliband, D won a majority of votes from parliamentarians and Labour members, and Milliband, E edged ahead thanks to Union votes from signed up union members like, erm, Lib Dem MP John Hemming.

And it’s a little bit fascinating.

Here’s how Nottingham’s Labour MPs voted:

Graham Allen – DM 1, EM 2 – didn’t use all his votes, didn’t back the winner – what with working with the EVIL ALLIANCE to try and see his early intervention project through to completion, is his influence on the wane in the Labour party?

Lilian Greenwood – well, what a trooper, there’s someone who knows how AV really works. She used all of her votes – 5 (Abbott) 3 (Balls) 4 (Burnham) 2 (DM) 1 (EM). Full marks to Lilian, you backed a winner!

Chris Leslie – 5 (Abbot) 1 (Balls) 4 (Burnham) 2 (DM) 3 (EM) – oh, my goodness, how exciting! The only thing he and Lilian agree with (apart from sharing a constituency office, of course) is who they DON’T wan running the party. Leslie can count to five too, another promising sign.

Glenis Wilmott – oh dear! Another one who can’t count to five. Just voted Dave 2, Ed 1. Still at least she got it the right way round!

Constituency Abbott Balls Burnham Milliband D Milliband E Spoiled Cast Issued Turnout
Nottingham East CLP 27 33 25 152 75 1 313 538 58.2%
Nottingham North CLP 8 28 13 73 42 0 164 210 78.1%
Nottingham South CLP 28 27 16 112 72 0 255 373 68.4%

What to make of that? Apart from all three CLPs backing David and being thwarted. Lots of members compared to the Lib Dems, but looking a little thin Oop North. Admirably few spoiled ballots. Interesting balance of members East cf South, would never have guessed that.

But why, Labour, why? Why publish all this information?!

Huhne on Nuclear

Chris Huhne, currently giving his speech to conference:

I say again there will be no subsidy to nuclear, for a very clear reason: it is a mature technology, not an infant needing nurture. Every person in my department has a very clear motivation to ensure that the full costs of nuclear – present and future – are fully taken into account. More than half our budget – £1.7bn a year – goes on the clean-up costs of old nuclear facilities. Britain had artificially cheap nuclear electricity for decades.

While I was on holiday in Wales, I met a camper in the caff doing his crossword, and in the conversation that ensued after I filled in “fast growing asian weed (5)” as KUDZU, he told me worked for the government monitoring nuclear pollution in our seas. His job involved cutting up mutated flatfish to work out how old they are.  Their eye positioning is apparently particularly susceptible to nuclear pollution and they have rings in their fishy ears that show their age like tree rings.

The last thing he told me was – never go to Dounreay.  A dog allowed to run free on the beach died from nuclear related death within six months.

I have no idea whether this guy was someone to take seriously – it all sounds a little unlikely, and I have often been mocked in the past for my scientific ignorance.  But Dounreay beach is not at the top of my to-visit list.

One minor disagreement with Nick

So there was one line in Nick’s speech that raised my hackles a little bit:

We have four years and seven months before the next election. 1690 days.

You might, duckie, but quite a sizeable chunk of the party’s councillors do not. For many elected Liberal Democrat representatives, the goal is next May.

So a chunk of Clegg’s speech was dedicated to the long term. Stick with us. Hold your nerve. By 2015 we will have achieved:

  • restored civil liberties
  • scrapped ID cards
  • got innocent people’s DNA off the police database
  • action to cut reoffending, and cut crime
  • stopped mass incarceration of children
  • withdrawn our combat troops from Afghanistan, our brave servicemen and women having completed the difficult job we asked them to do
  • achieved  a fair tax system where the rich pay their share, and the lowest earners pay no income tax at all
  • raised £10bn from our banking levy
  • home after home made warm and affordable to heat by our Green Deal
  • a new right to sack MPs who do wrong
  • party funding scandals are history.
  • elections for the house of Lords
  • Alternative Vote election with FPTP abolished

Wow! What a list.  I can’t wait for 2015.

This long-term, hold your nerve, stick the distance rhetoric is all very well, but there are vital local elections every year before then, with the largest tranche in a difficult set of clashes.  We’ll be up in 2011 battling at the same time as the AV referendum, uncertain of whether to target our council elections or spread our effort more widely so that people hear about the benefits of voting reform.  Then any Lib Dem councillors that remain after that onslaught will see elections at the same time as the next General Election.  History shows that it’s quite tough for Lib Dems to hold onto their seats and make gains at a council level when we’re also fighting a general election.

There was a paragraph that gave us some crumbs of hope: in the opening part of his speech Clegg was talking about the bits that already been achieved and the timetable for further changes due in the next year:

Just think what we’ve done already.  We’ve ended the injustice of the richest paying less tax on investments than the poorest do on their wages. We’ve guaranteed older people a decent increase in their pension. In November, we will publish a Freedom Bill to roll back a generation of illiberal and intrusive legislation. By Christmas, Identity Card laws will be consigned to the history books. From New Year’s Day, the banks will pay a new levy that will help fill the black hole they helped create. On 1 April, 900,000 low earners will stop paying income tax altogether. In May, the people of Britain will get to choose their own voting system. And this time next year, there will be a pupil premium so the children who need the most help, get the most help.

Will it be enough, in a year when Labour have an easy, but false narrative to sell?

Techie nerdgasm in the Liverpool Arena

So, I’m here in Liverpool in a largely behind-the-scenes role. I am benefitting from a Party Staff pass, which lets me get into all sorts of interesting places.

The LDV office is directly behind the stage, so one of the main routes in is right behind the giant screen. Which looks like this:

Backstage at #Ldconf

Today we held a fringe in a large room in the Arena, and so I got there early to to a bit of setup. They had a giant screen, so I could wangle my way into the tech room at the back so we could choose what we showed – a live screen of our website, in the end.

Is this the biggest screen @libdemvoice has ever been shown on? #ldconf.

And oh my, the room is techie heaven. Part of me is still thrilled by my teenage years spent working both as an actor at school and a stage techie at sixth form college, and I am really stage struck when it comes to the technicalities of theatre. (NB it’s one of many really good reasons to see the Nottingham Playhouse panto every year – they cram the panto with some really interesting coups de théâtre.)

So, the most exciting thing about the room by far is the fact that the entire set of 500 fixed seats are on a giant turntable. The same is true of Hall 1C.

Giant turntable in liverpool arena

So depending on how they want it set up you can either have one large hall with two smaller halls nearby, or you can rotate the two giant drums and add 1,000 seats to the large hall.

This explains why there are emergency exits apparently 4m high in the air. When the drum is rotated, the gap lines up with the stairs.

Not an emergency exit. No kidding. It's 4m off the ground! #Ldconf

Presumably it also makes the site an ideal location for recording “This is your life!”

Up in the tech room, there was lots to look at. The sound boards in professional theatre seem to changed so much since I last set up a sound board, I didn’t even recognise it as a sound board. So much for my geek points 😦

The full array of technical stuff was probably more than I can cope with, so I was very happy to leave it in the capable hands of the tech team who come with the venue.

We tried for a few minutes to work out whether it was possible to get a live feed out of the sound board into my Zoom H2 – but in the short while available before the event kicked off, it proved not possible, so we resorted to the usual of balancing the recorder on seat towards the rear of the room and then amplifying afterwards. (This has the unfortunate side effect of making the applause painful to listen to)

Imagine my surprise and delight when at the end of the fringe, one of the tech guys came down the steps and said, “we made a CD for you of the sound.” That is really helpful.

Unfortunately, none of the LDVers has both a laptop with a CD player, and something to rip the audio to MP3, so it will have to wait until I get home before I can do anything with it. But hopefully we’ll be able to replace the rough and ready version we made at conference with a more professional sound in the fullness of time.

The podcast of the fringe meeting is here.

Chris Huhne’s comforting words on renewable heat

All through conference, my LibDemVoice colleague Helen Duffett has arranged a series of blogger interviews of key figures in the Lib Dems, including several ministers. I think it’s a testament to their openness that Lib Dem ministers, including the most senior, still make themselves available for interviews in this way. A large group of people interviewed Nick Clegg yesterday, and today a group including me convened to talk to Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

It is quite remarkable how little you can get through in an hour when the person you are talking to is on top of his brief and really enthusiastic to talk about what is planned. We heard at great length about plans for the New Green Deal, which should be starting its process through parliament this autumn, ready to start being delivered by 2012.

This massively extends previous projects to get world class insulation into the vast majority of British homes which are woefully energy inefficient. Most energy efficiency projects like this actually pay for themselves by savings in energy costs, but many take 10 or 15 years before the payment is complete. The scheme Huhne is promoting will borrow the money from future energy bills, meaning that householders do not need to take on any personal debt to do it or affect their credit history. The money will sit between the energy provider and the householder and be paid off as part of future energy bills. Moving house will still be possible as future owners of your house will still have lower energy bills than had the work not been done and the prospect of drastically lower bills once the cost of the scheme has been paid.

In addition, the work will create a new industry. Huhne estimates there are only about 20-30,000 people working in this field at present, and in the future there will be a sustainable need for ten times that. The scheme will need carefully planned training courses, but is a reasonably simple construction type activity that a lot of people could learn to do relatively easily. Best of all, there will be a need for people to work in this field right across the country. Wherever there are houses there will need to be people working to implement the Green New Deal.

When it came to my turn to ask a question of Chris Huhne, I chose to ask about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). RHI is a scheme the last government consulted on but ran out of time to implement. Like the Renewable Obligation Certificate (ROC) and Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT) this is a pot of money designed to transfer money from old energy to new energy to make the transition away from carbon more manageable. ROCs take money from carbon based energy generation and pay them to renewable generators. And CERT is a levy on energy companies that goes to pay for energy efficiency in people’s houses – in Nottingham this is delivered by the Warmzone work.

RHI is particularly important in my work as a director of EnviroEnergy, Nottingham’s district heating system. This massive heat system transfers waste heat from the incinerator to heat many of the civic buildings in Nottingham and thousands of homes, largely in the Victoria Centre flats and St Anns. The company has struggled to break even in recent times, but is predicted to start making a profit real soon now.

What would help enormously with its finances is an injection of RHI cash. So I asked Huhne what the plans were for RHI.

His upfront position was that it will happen; that everyone in government sees the need; and that heat is central to meeting the legal target the UK has to generate 15% of its energy needs from renewables by 2020.

Chris Huhne said:

It’s inconceivable that we couldn’t support heat, because it’s such a crucial part of our renewable energy objectives. It’s absolutely key.

There is a minor “but” however. Unlike ROCs and CERTs, which are funded by levying industry, the RHI will be funded directly from taxpayers’ money. As such, it is part of the comprehensive spending review, which is indeed proving comprehensive. So until that process is complete, a little over a month from now, the details and the price are simply not certain. But RHI is definitely on its way.

Chris Huhne added:

“I have said as plainly as I can to the industry, ‘Hang on in there, the cavalry is coming.'”

Tesco in this week’s Pod Delusion

I’ve a piece in this week’s Pod Delusion talking about Tesco and planning permission – slightly drawn from my experience of sitting on Nottingham’s planning committee when Tesco are trying to get a permission out of us.

You can find the recording here.